WBEs in technology are surviving & thriving
These five very entrepreneurial WBEs are consistently tops in their fields.
"Certification is an effective way to keep on doing business with some of the best companies and brands in the world." – Pamela Prince-Eason, WBENC president
By Sonya Stinson
Small businesses can survive and even thrive in a tough economy if they're willing to adapt the supplier/customer relationship to changing needs, says Pamela Prince-Eason, president of the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). "Sometimes when people start a business they are wedded to the business model they first came up with," Prince-Eason explains. "But right now companies have to be very fast-paced, looking at new ways to do more with less."
The recession has clearly made it more difficult than ever for WBEs, especially start- ups, to get access to capital. Even worse, the big companies that form the WBEs' customer base are tightening their own belts, looking for ways to spend less on the goods and services they purchase from suppliers.
The same economic pressures weigh on WBEs and corporations, Prince-Eason explains. "Pressure on corporations to increase returns for their shareholders means pressure on suppliers, including WBEs, to cut prices or lower margins."
Certification provides a "soundness check"
It's ironic, Prince-Eason notes, that both WBENC and the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC) have seen a rise in the number of businesses applying for certification just as businesses are squeezing suppliers more tightly. Part of the reason, she says, is that the rigorous standards for certification by WBENC and NMSDC provide a "soundness check" on suppliers, and can help corporations identify competitive businesses to include in the procurement process.
Diverse suppliers are seeking the edge that certification provides in the marketplace. "We've had businesses that have been doing all right on their own for twenty-five years come in to be certified," Prince-Eason says. "Many of them say it's a more effective way to keep on doing business with some of the best companies and brands in the world."
Many successful technology-related businesses have used the "creative adaptability" principle to increase their marketability. For example, software sales companies are adding new services like training, while hardware developers are finding more success partnering with major industry players than competing with them.
Laser Lab gets WBE Star award
Michele McHenry, president and CEO of Laser Lab, Inc (Ephrata, PA), was one of fourteen entrepreneurs selected by WBENC's regional partner organizations to receive a 2011 WBE Star award.
Laser Lab provides remanufactured toner cartridges, refurbished office equipment and remote print-management services to a clientele of banks, medical institutions, corporations, accountants, attorneys and the like.
McHenry and her husband Vince, now the Laser Lab VP, started the business in 1991 in the basement of their home. The seed for the enterprise was planted when an intern at the construction company where Vince McHenry worked showed the couple how to remanufacture toner cartridges.
McHenry was then working part-time as a nurse. "It was hard to leave that field," she says, but she managed to transfer her caretaking instincts to customer care, she notes with a smile.
Laser Lab's first customers were Vince's former employer and the company's accountant. "Then we started to knock on doors; it was old-fashioned selling."
From toner cartridges the company went on to printer maintenance and repair services, then sales of office equipment of all kinds. "We recently expanded into computer networking and monitoring services as well," McHenry notes.
Laser Labs' twenty employees include printer and computer technicians and IT specialists. McHenry now focuses mainly on strategic development, sales and marketing and is no longer involved in the manufacturing end of the business. "As a small business owner it's amazing how many hats you wear, but some hats you eventually have to give up," she says.
BNY Mellon works with NMBC
The Bank of New York Mellon Corp (BNY Mellon, New York, NY) has been co-hosting women's business conferences with the National Minority Business Council (NMBC) for the past eight years, most recently this past March. "I've sat on that committee from the beginning," says Claire Scanlon, VP and supplier development program manager at BNY Mellon. "It's been very worthwhile."
The company works with a number of technology-related companies among the many WBEs in its supplier base. Scanlon says the relationships have been very successful, and she appreciates the qualities WBEs bring to the table. "It's truly helpful to have suppliers that are methodical and organized," she says. "That's something that's very much valued and appreciated when you're dealing with a supplier."
To enhance its supplier development process, BNY Mellon recently started an online registration site for supplier applicants. "They can click through to the supplier profile form and follow the directions," Scanlon says.
Novatus supplies software for BNY Mellon
Novatus, Inc, based in Orlando, FL, supplies contract management software to BNY Mellon. This business relationship dates back to 2004, even before the Bank of New York merged with Mellon Financial Corp to become BNY Mellon.
"It's really just in the last few years that most companies have known about contract management," says Novatus president and CEO Valerie Stanley. "When we started, it was only the most forward-thinking organizations that knew about it."
Recently Novatus provided a special software package for the bank's broker-dealer services group. "This is a really neat deployment, because the system allows these agreements to be negotiated and finalized completely electronically," says Stanley.
Stanley's path to entrepreneurship began in the late 1990s when she was doing admin work through temp agencies in metro Atlanta, GA. She did a stint as a receptionist at Candle Corp, a software company with HQ in El Segundo, CA that was later acquired by IBM. Candle liked her work and hired her on as a contract admin, and she spent five years there.
She supplemented two years of college study in business management with night courses at Atlanta's Shorter Business College, and the added credentials helped her land three big promotions at the company.
"Eventually I was a manager with seven people reporting to me and signature authority for contracts up to eight million dollars," she recalls with pride.
Stanley left Candle for an Orlando consulting firm that was launching a new software product for managing contracts. In 2000 a co-worker, Steve Rosbury, purchased the software product and formed Contract Management Solutions Inc (CMSI), bringing Stanley aboard as a shareholder and VP of sales and marketing. In five years they had more than 175 global customers.
When CMSI was acquired by another firm Stanley went into consulting, doing work for the new owners. In 2008 she rejoined some CMSI colleagues to create Novatus.
As leader of a company that employs about twenty people, Stanley has several keys to business success: a good mentor, good customer relations and hard work. And there's one more essential ingredient, she says with a smile. "You need to have experts around you, people that are smarter than you are, and listen to them!"
Integrated Science Solutions serves a distinguished government list
Cecelia McCloy is president and CEO of Integrated Science Solutions, Inc (ISSi), a Walnut Creek, CA science and engineering firm she founded in 1999 with partner David C. Dobson. The firm has managed projects up to $49 million, with a client list that includes NASA, the EPA, Lawrence Livermore National Labs, Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Sandia National Labs, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy.
McCloy was previously a corporate VP at defense contractor SAIC (McLean, VA), a Fortune 500 science, engineering and technology company. Before that she spent a year as a senior geologist with Petroci Holdings, the national oil company of the Ivory Coast in west Africa.
McCloy has a 1976 BS in geology and zoology from George Washington University (Washington, DC) and a 1984 MS in geology from Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA). She notes that when ISSi was being launched she called on her experience as an SAIC exec for confidence. "I had been a senior manager so I had a lot of profit and loss experience. I understood how you need to run a business," she says.
She was also encouraged by the emphasis the federal government placed on contracting with small businesses. But even with all that plus her contacts and experience providing services to federal agencies, landing contracts for ISSi was a major challenge in the beginning.
"It took us almost a year to get our first big break so we could hire more staff," McCloy says. "It's because of the lead time for marketing and business development in federal procurement, and the complexity of making sure you have the right people and have put together a good team.
"A lot of people want to do Federal government procurement, but believe me, it's not for the faint of heart!" she says.
After about a year of subcontracting with larger companies, ISSi began to explore the market for prime contracts. Its first success was a contract to provide environmental support services for NASA Ames Research Center (Moffett Field, CA).
ISSi now has forty-five employees in five locations, and conducts energy efficiency audits for municipal utilities. "That's a worthwhile thing to do," McCloy declares. "We've done analyses that show that if you do these small upfront improvements, not only will you have greater operational efficiency, but you should be able to lower the rates for your ratepayers!"
Wide-ranging clients for Darling Environmental
Mary Darling is principal owner of Darling Environmental and Surveying, Ltd (Tucson, AZ), located at the University of Arizona's technology park. The company's wide-ranging clientele includes utilities, engineering companies and major enterprises including Lockheed Martin, NASA and Ford Motor Co.
Before starting her business in 1996, Darling worked for a consulting firm that she says was "in a state of chaos." After her supervisor gave up and left the firm, she decided to go into business for herself.
She started out with clients of her former employer. A year later her husband Richard, who had also worked at the consulting firm, came to join her in the new business.
"I had always had a passion for environmental work. I had become very involved in threatened and endangered species surveys and permitting processes, and there was a high demand for that," says Darling, who has a 1977 BS in biological sciences and an MS in wildlife and fisheries from California State University (Sacramento, CA), and a 1984 JD in environmental law from the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law (Sacramento, CA).
Darling was certainly well equipped in environmental law and her husband was a registered land surveyor, so, "We cross-trained each other and did work in either field, depending on the client's needs," she recalls.
Like many entrepreneurs, the Darlings found their toughest challenge was acquiring startup financing. "When my husband joined the business we needed an office, surveying equipment and a heavy-duty pickup truck for the survey work," Darling says. "We went to three different banks and were turned down by all of them. We were told that a bank reads the words 'self-employed' to mean 'unemployed.'"
In the end they used their savings, credit cards and the company's initial earnings from consulting work to pay for equipment, and for three years they ran the business out of their home.
"We just kept a tight budget, got ahead of the curve and maintained a good cash flow," Darling says. "After we had six employees we moved into an office complex."
Now with fifteen employees, Darling Environmental and Surveying has a large division devoted to 3D laser scanning, which Darling says represents next-gen surveying. One upcoming project will be done in late 2011 for a major oil and gas company near Bogotá, Colombia.
"We like international work because it has tremendous opportunities and it's challenging," Darling says. "It gives us the chance to learn and break out of our routine."
ActioNet works with government departments
ActioNet, Inc (Vienna, VA) provides two high-profile Microsoft SharePoint systems for the U.S. Department of State (Washington, DC). Both are collaboration software programs the agency uses to enhance its internal and external communications. The project has been so successful that the State Department nominated the company for an award of excellence in 2009, says ActioNet president and CEO Ashley Chen, who has a 1992 BSCS and 1993 MSCS from Binghamton University (Binghamton, NY).
Founded in 1998, ActioNet provides IT services in program management, process improvement, software development, systems integration, security and training for several government agencies. In the beginning the company also did commercial work in the telecom industry, but now Chen focuses primarily on federal contracting.
At first her toughest battle was, as you might expect, simply getting her foot in the door in pursuit of federal contracts. "When you try to do business with the feds they always want to look at your past performance," says Chen. "They want references!"
For Chen the way in was to start small. "Our very first project was a Y2K independent verification and validation project for the Department of Transportation," she says. "It was for five months and brought in less than $50,000, and we had to subcontract under a larger company."
Today the Department of Transportation is ActioNet's biggest client. More than 200 of the WBE's 500-plus employees are assigned to that account.
Chen's relationship with the State Department began in 2005, when she met with Patricia Culbreth of the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization after another contractor suggested they connect. She recalls that Culbreth was very welcoming, offering advice and encouragement about the contract procurement process, and the next year ActioNet landed its first contract with State.
Chen notes that her company's slogan, "turning vision into action," is posted on its website, on marketing materials and even in the elevator. And Chen's willingness to put her entrepreneurial vision into action has certainly paid off. Asian Enterprise magazine named her its Asian Entrepreneur of the Year in 2004, and today Chen is extremely proud to have earned "outstanding" award fee ratings on several recent federal contracts.
Despite the rigors of the process, she thinks other MBEs should not hesitate to go after federal contracts if they think they can do the work. "My philosophy is, 'If you don't bid, you will certainly never win,'" Chen points out with a smile.
ORGANIZATIONS WITH ACTIVE SUPPLIER DIVERSITY PROGRAMS
Check details on the web.
|Company and location
|BNY Mellon (New York, NY)
|Citigroup (New York, NY)
|JPMorgan Chase & Co (New York, NY)
|Liberty Mutual (Boston, MA)
|Nielsen Media Research (Oldsmar, FL)
|Media audience measurement
|PepsiCo (Sommers, NY)
|Beverage, food and snack products
|U.S. Department of State (Washington, DC)
|U.S.-international diplomatic relations
Back to Top